A/N: Why it took me so freakin' long to finish this, I'll never know. But it's here, at last. Consider this a post-Thanksgiving gift.
"Oh God...sweetheart..." Mom's tears were hot and soaked the cheap hospital gown.
Have you ever thought about what would happen if you died? Have you wondered who would miss you, who would come to your funeral, what they would say...Have you wondered how people would get along without you, if they'd be all right?
I've thought about it. A girl can't spend all her time with ghosts without thinking about what would happen if she kicked the bucket. Of course, I hadn't really died, but still...I'd come awfully close.
Mom stepped aside, and Andy came up to me. There were tears in his eyes as he hugged me gently. "Missed you, kiddo," he choked out.
Oh God. There were tears in my eyes as I hugged him back. Then David, who was crying too, and Brad, who wasn't, but looked overwhelmed. I hugged them both as hard as possible.
And then Jake.
Jake, who knew everything. Jake, who had saved me. Jake, who hadn't abandoned me.
Not stepbrother, anymore. Just...brother.
And in that second before he came over and hugged me, I let go of New York and the life I'd had before. And when I embraced him, it wasn't just him I was embracing, but Mom and Andy and David and Brad too, all of them, the family that had been there for so long, waiting, but that I'd never really let in.
As we hugged, Jake whispered in my ear, "You had better tell me everything."
How long had I kept them away? Kept them at arms' length, not bothered to learn anything about them?
So I said, "Okay. I'll tell you."
After all he'd done for me, it was the least I could do.
And, although I didn't figure it out then, it was the least I could do for putting all of them through hell.
They told me it had been two weeks.
To me, it had felt like an eternity. I'd had no sense of time when I was up there. There had been nothing but circling spirits and the cold. God, had it been cold. If I had been corporeal, I would have frostbite.
And those ghosts…okay, I knew I'd made a few enemies. You can't be a mediator without pissing a few ghosts off, I don't care what Father Dominic says. Still, it wasn't like they hadn't deserved to get their ghostly asses kicked. Up there, though, I'd been at their mercy. Not that they'd had any. They'd shouted and screamed…said things…things I wouldn't ever repeat even to someone I hated.
But not even that was the worst part.
The worst part…was seeing Father Dominic and Paul up there. Seeing them fight so hard to find me, help me…hearing them call out my name…and then not hearing their voices at all. Remembering my mom, Andy, my stepbrothers, Cee Cee and Adam…and Jesse.
Remembering the way David's braces would always glint when he smiled. Sleepy and the way I would always have to get him up in the morning so he could drive us to school. How much fun I always had teasing Brad. My mom and her hugs, which I always pretended to hate but really, deep down, loved to receive. The smell of Andy's cooking.
Cee Cee's stick-straight hair, shining in the sunlight. Adam and the way he always cracked jokes. Father Dominic's kind eyes. Jesse and the scar in his eyebrow, and the way he kissed me, and how he always made me feel so safe.
Remembering all the people I loved…and how I might never see them again, that was the worst part. No question.
"So, how many tests have they run on you so far?" David asked.
I groaned. "Ugh. I've lost count."
David shrugged. "If I were them, I'd be running a battery of tests too. What happened to you makes no sense...to them, at least. They're trying to come up with a reason--a logical reason--for why you're awake."
"They aren't going to find one, though," I pouted.
Brad grinned. "Don't worry 'bout it. Dad and Mom are working on bailing you out. They're totally convinced that the doctors here are idiots."
I smiled. "Really?"
"Oh, yeah," Brad confirmed. "They've already run every test possible before…and they had no clue what was going on. Idiots." He paused for a moment. "Hey…you wanna learn how to surf?"
I blinked. "What?"
Brad was staring at the floor like they contained the answers to his midterms. "Uh…back—back when you were in the coma…Jake suggested that—if you woke up—we should take you surfing."
Surfing. The seawater would ruin my hair. I would be exhausted. Hanging out with both Jake and Brad would most likely drive me insane.
"Okay," I said automatically, smiling at him. "Yeah, it—it sounds like fun."
Brad's eyes grew huge. "Seriously? You mean it?"
"Yeah, doofus, I mean it!"
Right then, the biggest smile appeared on his face. And as crazy as it sounds, for the first time ever, I…I kind of realized what all the girls at school saw in him. "All right, then," he said, still grinning. "Cool." He glanced over at David. "You're coming too, geek."
David's eyes widened. "Me?"
"Yeah, you," Brad said. " 'Bout time you learned to do something other than homework."
David looked downright thrilled. And for that matter, so was I.
My mom smoothed the pillows for the fifth time. She was nervous for some strange reason, I could tell. "I know the place is messy…we just—we couldn't think of entering and cleaning it up when you were in the hospital—"
"Mom, it's okay," I reassured her. "It's not like I didn't make the mess in the first place."
She laughed at that. "Yeah, that is true." She paused, clearly wanting to say something more, to linger here.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
Her eyes grew ridiculously wide. "Nothing's wrong!"
"Mom. Come on." I sat down on the bed. "Just tell me."
She sighed. "I—you'll think it's silly."
"Just tell me."
Mom was silent for a long moment, then sat down next to me. "I'm afraid to let you go to sleep," she admitted in a whisper, her eyes filling with tears.
Afraid to—oh. Oh. "Mom—" My voice broke a little.
"When—when you were in the hospital, all I could think about was that I hadn't said goodnight to you. Remember? You'd gone upstairs, and—and I was worrying about the story we were about to break and—and I thought, she won't notice, it doesn't matter. But it did, because the next morning, no matter how hard we shook you or how loudly we called your name, you wouldn't wake up." The tears tumbled down her cheeks. "And all I could think was that my daughter might never wake up and I didn't get to tell you goodnight or that I loved you or—"
For the first time in ages, I was the one to pull her into a hug. "Mom, it's okay," I whispered into her hair. "I'm okay now. I promise, I'm going to wake up in the morning."
My mom pulled away and wiped at her tears. "You'd better," she said with a little laugh. "Because Andy's planning this huge breakfast…"
We talked for a little while longer, about important and not-so-important things, then with a little sigh, Mom kissed me on the forehead, her cool lips brushing against my skin. "Goodnight, sweetheart."
"Night, Mom. I love you."
Her smile was a little watery. "I love you too."
In the middle of the night, Jesse came.
I sat up straight, just…staring at him. "Jesse," I breathed.
"Susannah…" His voice trailed off. "Are you all right? Should I go?"
"No, stay," I said.
He just looked at me for a long moment. Then with a sigh, he came over to the bed and hugged me, hard. "I missed you," he whispered into my hair.
"Missed you too."
Jesse ended up spending the night. And no, before you ask, nothing happened. Come on, it was Jesse. Jesse, the guy who flipped out with guilt over kissing me—you really think I'd get any farther than first base?
That was actually okay. I needed comfort, not—anything else. So, as lame as it might sound, we just…leaned back against the pillows, his arms around me, his head on my shoulder. I was lying between his legs and inspecting his hands.
"Do you have moisturizer in the afterlife?" I mused. "Because your hands aren't dry at all."
Jesse laughed slightly, the air he was expelling tickling my ear. "No, we do not."
I leaned back against him. "You know…I don't think it's really sunk in yet, how long I was gone."
"It was…" Jesse trailed off, and I could feel him shaking his head.
"Tell me," I said abruptly. "Tell me…tell me how it was like for them. For all of you. Please? I need—I need to understand."
There was a long pause. "It was a nightmare," Jesse said finally, his voice a little hoarse. "Your family…they were so—they didn't understand anything, and we couldn't tell them…your mother cried all the time, and she barely ate…"
I had noticed the fact that Mom had lost at least eight pounds…
"But your stepfather and your stepbrothers…they were hit the worst."
Oh God. And I knew exactly why. "Because this had happened before," I said, my voice a little shaky.
"Yes. Andy…he—he seemed lost. He just—you could tell that he couldn't fathom how this could be happening again. When David wasn't talking to us, he would lock himself in his room, Brad was in complete denial…Jake tried to keep everyone together, but you could tell that he was barely keeping himself together…it was a nightmare, Susannah," he finished.
I could feel this horrible lump building in my throat. I knew all of this, deep down, after all, I had seem my mom's weight loss, the dark circles under her eyes and Andy's. I had seen that Jake and Brad's tans had faded, that their skin was paler than I'd ever seen it before. I had how wan David's face was now. I had known.
But it still was a shock to hear it all spelled out. To hear that they cared that much, that I mattered that much.
"How did Jake end up saving me?"
I could feel Jesse smiling into my hair. "He caught David trying to sneak out, and insisted on accompanying him. He came to the Mission, and we eventually had to explain everything…"
"Oh God," I said blankly. "That must have been really interesting."
"Well, I had to do a few parlour tricks, but it wasn't so bad. He was a little stunned at first—"
I could imagine. Being told that yes, there were ghosts, yes, your newest addition to the family combats them occasionally, and yes, she is being held in some ghostly netherworld…I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that he'd had a complete meltdown.
"—but he adjusted well," Jesse continued. "He insisted on taking David's place, and you know the rest."
"He wasn't afraid?" I asked.
"No, well—it was like…like he was afraid, but that it didn't matter that he was afraid. This was just something he had to do. I was impressed, I didn't realize how much loyalty he felt towards you."
"I didn't know either," I admitted. Although, in a way, I should have. Jake had gotten up in the middle of the night and dug through rubble to find me, he'd tried to keep me away from Michael Meducci on our parents' orders…for a guy who didn't seem to care about anything, he'd helped me out quite a lot.
Jesse plucked at the sleeve of my turtleneck. "Why are you wearing this? You usually wear tank tops when you go to sleep—"
I shrugged. "I'm having some trouble keeping warm these days," I admitted, trying to make light of it.
He tightened his arms. "Maybe I can help with that. Would you like me to stay tonight?"
"Yes," I whispered. "I'd like that."
And he did.
All in all, getting caught with Jesse in my bed by my brother wasn't the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me, but it was definitely in the top ten.
"Whoa," Jake said. "Whoa."
"Uh, this isn't what it looks like," I stammered, mortified, then frowned. "Wait. How do you know what it looks like?"
Jake's eyes grew huge. "Holy shit," he said blankly. "Dude, I see dead people."
Yep, that's right. I had turned Jake into a mediator. He could see Jesse, touch him, hear him…Jake was just like me now.
To say I was feeling guilty would be the understatement of the year. Jake had done this incredibly noble, selfless thing, and how does he get rewarded for it? By getting stuck with the same so-called gift that had wreaked havoc on my life.
But did anyone share my outlook? Nooo. In fact, Dr. Slaski was downright thrilled about it. You could tell he'd been dying to get back to his experiments, and Jake was looking like one hell of a guinea pig. Despite his denials, I could tell that Father Dominic was kind of curious too.
Jake, after the initial shock of it all, was taking things in stride.
"Dude, I just figure things can't get any weirder than this," he said cheerfully.
He probably shouldn't have said that. After all, things always get weirder around here. Always.
As I adjusted back into the everyday grind of things, I had little time to talk to Jake. When I wasn't at school, I was either surrounded by my friends or by my family. And as much as I loved spending time with then, I still needed to talk to Jake. Have a long, long talk with him about everything. About how grateful I was for his help, how sorry I was that I'd dragged him into something he hadn't asked for.
And how happy I was to realize that he was in my corner.
But I didn't get the chance. Jake was doing double-time at the pizza place, making up for the time he'd been gone when I was in the coma. When he wasn't at school or working, he was over at Paul's place, submitting to the poking and prodding. When he was home, all he wanted to do was sleep, and right now, I couldn't blame him one bit.
I blinked in shock as the loud music assaulted my ears. "Okay, whose idea was this again?"
"Kelly's," Adam said wearily. "She's been dying to host a big event, and you coming back from the dead was a good enough excuse." He wrapped an arm around my shoulders supportively. "I know this must be kind of intense for you…all these people—but they really are happy to have you back. And so are we."
I wrapped an arm around his waist. "I know," I said, grinning up at him.
Kelly's house was packed. To my surprise and delight, she hadn't just invited the popular crowd, from the looks of things, everyone in the school had been invited, regardless of how popular or fashionable they were.
It took me ages to get to the refreshment table, mostly because everyone felt the need to stop me and tell me how grateful they were that I was all right. When I got there, Paul Slater was standing nearby. "Hey, Suze," he said easily.
"Hey, Paul," I said back. Our relationship was better now since he'd finally backed off for good. "How's your grandfather?"
"Ehh, Pops is better than ever, now that he's got something to do."
He meant testing my brother.
Paul tilted his head, reading the expression on my face. "You know, it's not your fault."
"Of course it is," I said briskly. "Jake went in there after me, and how does he get rewarded? By getting stuck with this—this curse."
"Have you talked to him at all about this?"
"No," I said sulkily. "Can't get any alone time with him. He's so busy…"
"Thought so," Paul said, nodding. "Because if you had, then you'd know that Jake doesn't look at this like it's a curse. He doesn't blame you. No one does. So stop with the guilt already."
It was oddly comforting, in that weird Paul way. "Thanks, I guess," I said, then looked at him.
Paul grew uncomfortable under my scrutiny. "What?"
"Thanks for…everything you did. Trying to help me," I said. "You know, you can be a pretty decent guy when you let yourself."
It could have been my imagination, but Paul…Paul might have been blushing a little. "Thanks. I'll take that as a compliment." He shook his head. "If you had ever told me there would be a time when de Silva and I would be on the same side…" He mock-shuddered. "Never again."
I laughed at him. "Don't worry, I have no plans to fall into another coma."
"Glad to hear it." In a falsely casual voice, Paul asked, "Hey, did your friend Cee Cee come with you?"
"Yeah, I think she came with Adam—" Just then, the strangeness of Paul asking about Cee Cee hit me. "Wait—wait just a minute," I said, holding up my hands. "Why do you want to know if Cee Cee came to this party?"
Now I knew he was blushing.
Holy crap. Paul and—and Cee Cee? "No way," I gasped.
He squirmed. "I met her in the hospital and—and she's pretty cool."
"No way!" I crowed, getting the attention of some people nearby. Ignoring their stares, I continued. "Unbelievable."
"Simon," Paul hissed, "shut up. Everyone's staring at us."
I grinned at him. "You like Cee Cee," I said in a sing-song voice, then grew serious. "If you hurt her—"
"I won't, I won't," he assured me, then frowned. "She doesn't have a ghost for a boyfriend, does she?"
"No," I reassured him.
He grinned. "Good. So, where is she? Think it'd be too abrupt if I asked her to dance?"
"No way," I told him. "Feel free. She's right over there."
I watched with amusement as Paul made his way over to where Cee Cee and Adam were talking. As he sweet-talked Cee Cee, I could see Adam's expression growing darker by the second. And when Paul pulled Cee Cee out onto the dance floor---ooh, boy.
"I can't freakin' believe it!" some girl behind me squealed in irritation. "Kelly's actually invited all these nerds to her party, and Cee Cee Webb is dancing with the hottest guy here. I swear things can't get any crazier than this."
Maybe they were right. There had to be a limit, right? Right?
"Hey, Suze?" Jake poked his head into my room.
I looked up from the horror that was my calculus homework. My teachers had been really lenient, what with me being in the hospital for two weeks, but I was still really behind. I smiled. "Hey, Jake."
"Let's go for a ride," he suggested.
"I've never been here before," I commented, looking around the beach.
Jake kicked at the sand. "Back when—when my mom was still alive, we used to come here a lot for picnics and stuff." He plopped down in the sand and gestured for me to join him. Thankfully, I was wearing a ratty hoodie and an old pair of jeans, not my usual fashionable wear, so it didn't matter if I got sand on it.
Sitting down next to him, I asked, "So…how are you doing?"
"You mean, what with the whole newbie mediator thing?" Jake elaborated for me. He shrugged. "I'm okay so far. And it's not your fault by the way."
"Who said I was blaming myself?" He gave me a look. "Well, okay, maybe I was, a little. Jake, you didn't ask for any of this—"
"Tell me everything."
Jake's calm request threw me off-kilter for a moment. "What?"
His blue eyes met mine. "Tell me everything that's happened since you came here. All of it. All the weird stuff that can't be explained, all the trouble you get to, how you ended up living with a ghost in your bedroom…everything."
My mouth fell open. I had known this was coming after all, but still…to hear it spelled out like that was still kind of a shock. "If I do, we'll be here a long time," I mumbled.
Jake grinned and patted the backpack he'd brought with him. "I brought some sodas and chips." He paused, and his expression grew serious. "Suze, if you think you owe me anything, this is it. This is all I'm asking for."
And I remembered hissing voices in my ears, and a cold wind chilling me down to my bones. I remembered the way Jake had stood up to them. How tightly he had held on to my hand.
I owed him everything.
And if this was the way to start to repay him…then I'd do it. I'd finally give the explanation that I'd never given to anyone else, not really, not my mom or Cee Cee or David or anyone. Everyone who knew had figured it out on their own, which had made it really easy on me, because then I didn't have to tell them.
But I was finally, finally going to tell someone everything.
And I did.
Jake, for all his faults—the guy may have saved my life, but he wasn't perfect—but Jake knew how to listen. He was silent when he needed to be, asked questions in all the right places.
By the time I finished talking, the sun was sinking into the horizon. My throat was scratchy, my throat hoarse, but I was so, so relieved to be done with it.
For a long time, neither one of us said anything. Finally, Jake said softly, "That is the most screwed-up story I've ever heard."
I laughed. "Yeah, no kidding. Try living it."
"Damn, and I thought you just had a permanent case of PMS. No wonder you're so bitchy." I smacked him, hard. "Ow! Well, it's the truth!"
So maybe he was right. "Shut up," I said anyway.
"Mom has no idea, does she?"
"No, she doesn't," I said, my voice even.
"Neither does Dad…Brad's clueless…and David knows, but only because he worked things out on his own, right?"
He rubbed at his face. "You know we have to tell them, right?"
My eyes grew huge. "What? Jake, no—"
"Suze, they have a right to know the truth. About you, about me—if anything like this happens again—" Jake broke off and stared at me. "Do you know what the worst thing was when you were in the hospital? It was—it was the fact that we had no idea what was wrong with you? With my mom, we knew why she was sick. We knew it was the cancer. But you—Suze, it was just crazy. The doctors were running all these tests, calling in specialists—and we had no idea what to do. We didn't know how to help you—all we could do was sit around and wait. Do you know how frustrating that is?"
"I think they can take it," he continued. "Hey, after the initial shock, Mom'll probably be relieved that you're not in a gang or whatever."
"They'll never believe it," I muttered, grasping at straws.
"We'll bring in Father Dominic and Dr. Slaski and Paul and Jesse. Jesse can convince them in a heartbeat," Jake countered. "Please, Suze. I can deal with the mediator thing—but I don't want to lie to my family for the rest of my life."
Did he have any idea what he was asking me to do? Spill the biggest secret of my life, run the risk of—wait. What would I be risking?
I had kept the truth from my mom because I thought it would be easier on her. But really, was it? If she found out, at least she would now know the cause of all the strange things I'd get myself into. She would stop thinking of herself as a bad parent or wonder what had gone wrong with me. She'd finally know.
I sighed. "Think they'll be able to deal with it?"
"Compared to those two weeks you were in a coma, this'll be a piece of cake," Jake said, grinning as he realized this was my roundabout way of saying okay.
After all, I did owe him.
I took a deep breath before entering the kitchen. "Mom?"
She looked up from the book she was reading at the table. "Yes, sweetheart?"
My tongue was dry and felt like lead, but I still managed to say, "Could—could you come into the living room? We need to talk."
It's a bright, sunny day. There is a family at the beach. We see the father fussing over a picnic basket, while the youngest child, a boy with braces and red hair, puts on some sunscreen to ward off the sunburn that is bound to come anyway. The mother is watching as two teenage boys teach a girl with dark curly hair how to surf.
As the girl rides her first wave, the mother turns to her husband and says dreamily, "We're all okay now, aren't we?"
He thinks of his first wife and her death, and that horrible time when he thought history was repeating itself. He thinks of his sons, and his daughter, and the long confession that had taken hours for her to finish. He thinks of objects floating in mid-air, and all the strange occurrences that had been happening for months finally, finally making sense. He thinks of the sense of relief that came with finally knowing the truth.
He thinks of his daughter, complaining on the telephone and referring to him as "Dad", and he smiles. "Yes," he tells his wife. "We're all okay now."
And he isn't lying.